Ali-Frazier II


Ali-Frazier II

Enough with the Grizzlies and other assorted flotsam and jetsam. Tonight, in Auburn Hills, Mich., the two best teams in the East again meet in what promises to be, as Johnny Most might have said, a real barn burner.

Neither team has lost since they last met Dec. 19, when Detroit came away with an 87-85 victory at TD Banknorth Garden, the only blemish on the Celtics' home record. The Pistons ripped off their 11th straight victory last night in Toronto, 101-85, while the Celtics were making it eight in a row with their ho-hum 100-96 dispatching of Memphis. (What? Two straight home games decided by 4 points each?)

After the Pistons' win here, Chauncey Billups said he hoped the Celtics wouldn't lose another game until the next Boston-Detroit meeting, the easier for the Pistons to fly under the radar, which is their preferred altitude. But it's impossible to ignore Detroit anymore, not that you ever could. The Pistons have won 26 games - only two fewer than the Celtics - and they are 13-2 at The Palace, where their average victory margin exceeds 15 points.

"I've always said that when we sit and talk about teams that are going to challenge us, and are going to be challenging, I feel that Detroit is one of those teams," Kevin Garnett said after last night's game. "I feel if we're going to be of any substance, we're going to have to beat teams like this. It's a measuring stick for our team."

That's pretty much the same line of thinking offered by that well-known philosopher Rasheed Wallace. Earlier in the week, the Pistons forward said, "For them, it's a big game to try and test their team." Last night, after the Pistons' win, he added, "It's going to be the same game it was last time. It's two good teams that know each other pretty well. It ain't like either of us is going to break anything new."

In that both teams played last night and had to travel, neither has the advantage. In December, each team had two days off prior to the game. In all likelihood, another 87-85 game is probably in the offing, given that the Celtics (1) and Pistons (2) stand at the top of the list for best defensive units in the league.

The game is a hot sell in Auburn Hills, even though the Pistons routinely sell out The Palace. (Their last non-sellout was in 2003-04; they've banged out the joint 200 straight times.) On Stubhub.com, the ticket buying website, a seat in a lower-level suite was going for $3,530. (Let's hope the food and beverages are good.) The most expensive lower-bowl seat was being sold for $589 and a seat in the nosebleed section was being offered for a comparatively reasonable $115.

Detroit's 11 straight wins matches the fourth-longest winning streak in franchise history. The 1989-90 team, which won the second of the Pistons' two straight titles, won 13 straight, as did the 2003-04 team, which also won the NBA championship. The 1989-90 team ripped off 12 straight wins.

"We have a lot of guys playing really well right now," said Billups, the hero of the first Boston-Detroit meeting. "Winning 11 in a row is a great feat in this league. There are a lot of great players and a lot of great teams. I am real happy with the way we are playing right now."

One thing the Celtics can count on - a field goal from Ray Allen. One of the league's sweetest shooters bricked all nine of his field goal attempts last night, six in the first quarter. He's only done that once before in his career. He ended up with 2 points and admitted in the past that if he had a game like that, or one close to that, his team wouldn't have won.

Allen said he thought the Celtics would like a little revenge for their only home loss of the season. Asked if the Celtics needed to win to prove anything to themselves, Allen said, "The better teams have that cockiness in the playoffs and that can come from beating a team during the season. You want to give them something to think about if you play them in the postseason."

Doc Rivers said regardless of who wins tonight, or who finishes where at season's end, the Pistons will always have one big advantage over his team: the experience of having been there before.

"We're not going to be able to make that part up," he said. "They've been through Game 7s where they've won, Game 7s where they've lost, Eastern Conference finals ... That's an advantage that they have over us, still."

Detroit coach Flip Saunders said he expected The Palace to be rocking.

Garnett said, "I expect them to be revved up. I look forward to it being hostile, like always. Should be fun, though."

Asked what he thought about tonight's Armageddon, Pistons hoops boss Joe Dumars fired back an e-mail saying, "Armageddon?? Wow. I was just hoping for a really good, intense basketball game."

He closed the dispatch with two smiley faces.

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